The escape of the enablers
When Wall Street fails, it inevitably asks for a handout. Fortune's Allan Sloan says there must be a better way.
NEW YORK (Fortune) -- Wall Street loves to talk about letting financial markets weed out the weak. But when the Street itself gets in trouble, it sticks out its little tin cup, asking for help. And gets it.
The subprime-mortgage-market meltdown is a classic example of the way small fry get devoured, but the whales of Wall Street get rescued. Here's the deal: People with crummy credit who took out mortgages are being allowed to fail in record numbers. The mortgage companies that made those loans are being allowed to fail.
The Street itself? It's bailout city. Even before the Fed made a symbolic half-point cut in the discount rate, it and other central banks from Switzerland to Singapore were trying to rescue the Street by injecting hundreds of billions of dollars into the financial markets and announcing they will put up more, if needed.
Hello? If you believe in markets - which I do - this rescue is especially galling, because Wall Street enabled this mess in the first place. How so? By happily sucking up hundreds of billions of dollars' worth of suspect mortgages from marginal U.S. borrowers-and begging mortgage makers to create more of them. The Street sliced and diced this financial toxic waste into a variety of esoteric securities, making a nice markup when it sold them and generating a continuing stream of profits when it made markets in them.
Somehow analysts at credit-rating agencies, looking at computerized scenarios rather than at the real world, decided that the bulk of the securities backed by these trashy loans could be rated triple-A.
It's really amazing: Most of the loans to substandard creditors borrowing 100% of the purchase price of homes they couldn't afford were rated the same as GE and the federal government. That makes no sense. But the money rolled in, and Wall Street-by which I mean the world's biggest and most important financial institutions-didn't care about the real world or ask any questions. It was too busy making money, and cashing bonus checks generated by subprime-mortgage profits.
But the world's central banks aren't letting the big guys fail. Think of it as the Escape of the Enablers. The reason this is happening, of course, is the same reason that the Fed orchestrated a bailout of the infamous Long-Term Capital Management hedge fund a decade ago-and about 20 years ago didn't close some of the nation's biggest banks, even though they were effectively insolvent because unrealized losses had wiped out their capital.
It's the "too big to fail" syndrome. In a world in which big players make incredibly large and complex deals with one another - that's what derivatives are - regulators don't dare let a big or important institution fail for fear that the collapse of one would lead to "cascading failures," and other institutions wouldn't be able to collect what the collapsed institution owed them.
The Fed's job, you see, isn't to protect you and me and our retirement portfolios, or even many of the nation's largest companies and biggest employers. The Fed's job is to protect the financial system. That's why it's trying to rescue the gigantic subprime enablers while letting borrowers and mortgage companies go under.
Your collapse or mine wouldn't bother Fed chairman Ben Bernanke or the world's other central bankers. But if, say, a big German institution loaded to the eyeballs with subprime securities croaked, Bernanke and his fellow central bankers would care a lot.
Sure, we know that Ben and the boys will always bail out the biggies. And none of us - I think, anyway - wants the world's financial system to implode. But I'd feel a lot better if the Street had to pay a serious price to its rescuers--say, having to fork over a big equity stake and pay a loan-shark interest rate. That way taxpayers, who are picking up the tab for the rescue, would get paid bigtime for taking on bigtime risk.